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Conscientious objectors story finally told
May 31, 2004
Winnipeg, Man. — About sixty years ago, over 10,000 Canadian conscientious objectors, many of them Mennonite, chose alternative service instead of fighting in the Second World War.
Their story has been largely relegated to short print-run books and contributions to archival collections. In 1996, Conrad Stoesz, now archivist and researcher at the Mennonite Heritage Centre, contacted the federal government to obtain conscientious objector (CO) records but was told the files had been destroyed.
This revelation planted the seed of an idea that has now grown into a comprehensive 700 page web site called www.alternativeservice.ca. The web site tells the stories of men who, instead of fighting, built roads and bridges, fought fires, taught school children, mined, logged, farmed, worked in manufacturing and the medical field. By law, most of their earnings were sent to the Red Cross for relief work. The site makes comprehensive use of rare archival documents and photos, film footage, and audio recordings. It also tells the stories of families and churches that supported COs.
The web site was officially launched on May 26. At the launch, Esther Epp-Tiessen representing Mennonite Central Committee’s peace and justice desk, said, “Conscientious objectors gave us the gift of showing another way, and this website is an example of their gift.” MCC together with Mennonite Church Canada, the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canadian Culture Online Program, as well as the Canadian Council of Archives, the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society and private donors helped fund the project. The project cost about $20,000, plus significant volunteer contributions.
Dr. David Schroeder, one of the site’s contributors, briefly told his story to the 50 plus people gathered to commemorate the launch. After he was drafted, he applied for CO status, and became an orderly at St Boniface Hospital.
He spoke about how conscientious objection led many men to lives of service in society. Of the twenty-eight COs that worked in the St. Boniface hospital with him, twenty-five of them pursued careers in social service. “In the long run, I am more convinced that I made the right choice. We need to address the futility of war.”
Henry Borne worked in a forestry camp at Radium Hot Springs with other CO’s. The conditions could be challenging. “We ate elk meat that was so old that they were just about ready to die off. That’s what the boys got. Old tough elk meat. Boy, you had to have good teeth.”
Borne described the reaction of some people to the CO stance. One of the cooks accused them of cowardice, saying, “‘Our men are out on the front lines and you’re just fooling around here in the bush.’ What could we do? We just shut up and did our work and kept on going.”
In a section called “Hard Questions”, content developers respond to frequently asked questions and accusations leveled at pacifists. such as, “What is the difference between being a pacifist and a coward?” Schroeder’s own thoughtful responses to the tough questions bring integrity to the entire package.
Developers paid close attention to the making the language on the site accessible to a wide age range. “We developed the content keeping in mind that students in at least two grades in Manitoba have units in their curriculum that relate to the Second World War. Our hope is that teachers and students, in addition to others, will visit the site to learn more about peaceful alternatives to war,” said Stoesz.